The Siege of Baltimorenby Chilton Williamson, Jr.n”Newspapers have degenerated, they may now be absolutely relied upon.”n— Oscar WildenThe Impossible H.L. Mencken:nA Selection of His BestnNewspaper StoriesnEdited by Marion Elizabeth RodgersnWith a foreword by Gore VidalnNew York: Anchor/Doubleday;n707 pp., $27.50nIt is 36 years since the gaseous incorporealnsoul of Henry Louis Mencken,nsummoned before the throne ofnHim in Whom he for 76 years hadnexpressed unbelief, presumably utterednthe words the fleshly Mencken hadnrehearsed for such unlikely occasion:n”Gentlemen, I was wrong!” In theninterval between 1956 and the present,nthe art and ideas — and through themnthe personality — of the defunctnMencken continue to withstand time,npolitical correctness, the assaults of hostilenjournalistic successors like GarrynWills and the late Henry Fairlie, and thenmore insulting attentions of those singalong-with-Mitchnimitators whose paragonnis R. Emmett Tyrrell of the AmericannSpectator.nStill, it is my opinion that nobody yetnhas got H.L. Mencken right. For instance,nFairlie, in an essay he wrote toncommemorate the Mencken centennialnin 1980, dismissed his subject fornhaving been merely a superior examplenof the personalizing writer who innFairfie’s view typifies the Americannjournalist; while Louis D. Rubin, Jr.,nwriting for the Sewanee Review’s summern1991 number, professed to findnonly “mystery” in the supposedly contradictorynattitudes upon whichnMencken’s work rests. It has become ancommonplace that nobody writing asnMencken wrote could be published innthe American prints of today, by whichnis meant chiefly that to refer as outspokenlynto Negroes, Jews, and lady politiciansnas H.L. Mencken regularly did isnnot only verboten but a one-way ticketnChilton Williamson, Jr. is seniorneditor for books at Ghronicles.nto that instant obscurity that mostnworking journalists cannot afford, andnall of them abhor. But Mencken’snreadiness for insult is not what primarilyndefines him, and neither is his allegednsubjectivism. It is possible to benmuch less objective than HenrynMencken was, while sounding a greatndeal more so. What characterizesnMencken as a journalist is his ambivalence,nan ambivalence that is indispensablenequipment for the so-called creativenartist and was common to mostnjournalists in an era when novelists andneven poets began their literary careersnas newspaper reporters. In our ownntime — the heyday of the news commentatornas secular guru, unelectednpolitician, political scientist, unaccreditednprofessor, and Keeper of the Gonsciencenof America — any ambivalencenis anathema, particularly to politicalncolumnists who regard acceptance ofnthe fundamental ambiguity of humannnnlife as conduct unbecoming a professional.nIn his youth Mencken experimentednwith the short story form and publishedna small volume of poetry, VenturesnInto Verse. Quite sensibly, henabandoned both fiction and poetry andnin middle age effected discreet raids onnbookstores for the purpose of seizing,nbuying, and destroying copies of Ventures,nwhich national renown had elevatednto the status of collectors’ items.nIn due course he redirected his literaryntalent to criticism, but the germ of thencreative artist continued to circulate innhis system. As a newspaper reporternwriting for an age vastly more literatenthan the present, Mencken saw, smelt,nfelt, heard, and touched as the novelistnsees, smells, feels, hears, and touches;nlike the novelist also he sought to placenthe reality these sensations suggested tonhim within his work. There is none ofnwhat Henry James called “weak specificity”nin Mencken’s writing; the backgroundnand the characters loomingnagainst it are presented dramatically, innbroad strokes and in detail. This is truenespecially in the reportorial pieces,nsuch as the famous Baltimore EveningnSun columns describing the MonkeynTrial in Dayton, Tennessee, and thennational political convenhons, but anpoetic concreteness is discernible innthe commentary as well. WhatnMencken gives his reader is less then”news,” strictly considered, than thenera and the society in which the “newsnevents” he covered occurred, and then”issues” sparked by such events. This isnwhy his “journalism” lasts, why it continuesnto be read today in spite of thenunpopularity of many or most of hisnopinions. I do not believe it is annexaggeration to say that in Mencken’snwork, American civilization betweenn1900 and 1948 (when he suffered thendisabling stroke that ended his career)nis embodied as pungently and completelynas the civilization of VictoriannEngland is in the novels of Trollope, ornthat of the American South from thenFEBRUARY 1992/27n